Lack of storage space for radioactive waste may force the shutdown of 23 nuclear power plants beginning in 1979 if action is not taken soon, according to the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA).

An ERDA report, prepared at the request of Rep. John E. Moss (D-Calif.), said Virginia's Surry I and II plants will run out of storage space for spent nuclear fuel in 1983, and Maryland's Calvert Cliffs I and II plants will do so in 1984. In addition, by 1982 all four plants will lack capacity to store their full core of nuclear fuel should that ever have to be removed, the report said.

One nuclear plant already affected by the storage crisis is Dairyland Cooperative Power Co's. installation at LaCrosse, Wis., which is now unable to store it full fuel core and will have to shut down in 1979 unless a remedy is found.

The entire problem of nuclear waste storage is a delicate one that has generated reams of studies on assorted exotic proposals ranging from blasting it into the sun to dropping it into mid-ocean trenches where the earth is slowly folding underground.

Until this year attention focused on "high level" waste from defense uses of nuclear material - that is, the making of nuclear weapons - since spent nuclear reactor fuel from electric power plants was assumed to be destined for reprocessing. However, President Carter this spring announced an immediate halt to all reprocessing plant development in order to discourage the spread of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons.

Spokesmen for both the Virginia Electric and Power Co. and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. placed part of the blame for their current problem of spent fuel storage on that decision by Carter. The spent fuel, in the form of rods of uranium dioxide covered with a "cladding" of zircalloy, has been piling up in water-filled swimming-style storage areas awaiting the day when commercial reproccesing would take it off the utilities' hands.

Now, however, it looks as though that day might never come. The results is that the "swimming pools" are slowly filling up. The nation's 66 nuclear plants will have a total of 3,400 metric tons of spent fuel in storage by the end of 1977, adding to it at the rate of 1,000 metric tons a year, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The material is very dense and heavy, and takes up space equivalent to 70 rilroad ties 8 inches square and 12 feet long, for each plant each year, according to one industry estimate.

At Vepco's Surry 1 and 11, the concrete, stainless steel-lined swimming pool is 72 feet by 30 feet and 41 feet deep. The rods are lowered into it to a depth 25 feet below the surface on racks filled with "nuclear absorbent" boron that helps cool them down. The pool can now hold 464 spent fuel assemblies, which is adequate until 1979, a Vepco spokesman said. The company has applied to the NRC for permission to put in more racks, at a cost of $1.3 million, which would then be adequate until 1983.

The absence of once-planned reprocessing services is directly responsible for the accumulation of spent fuel at commercial nuclear stations," said Vepco senior vice president W.L. Profitt in a statement.

A spokesman for Baltimore Gas, Charles J. Franklin, said his firm favors a return to reprocessing, but in the meantime is studying ways "that might - and I stress might - increase our storage capacity." He added that nuclear power plants are "playing a wait-and-see game with the federal government" over what to do about storage the spent fuel.

A spokesman for James R. Schlesinger, President Carter's energy adviser who will head the newly created Department of Energy beginning Oct. 1, said a policy statement on waste storage is "imminent. . . in the next couple of weeks."

Rep. Moss warned that led time of up to six years would be needed for construction of any storage facility. "The earliest an independent spent-fuel storage facility could be built and licensed is 1983," he said in an Aug. 5 letter to Carter, "yet by 1983, 30 reactors will have lost either full core or reload discharge capacity." He said that could mean the loss of thousands of megawatts of electrical power.

George W. Cunningham, director of ERDA's Division of Waste Management, Production and Reprocessing, said he did not agree there was a danger of any plant actually shutting down."That assumes people will cry and wring their hands and do nothing," he said. "When companies see they have problems they try to do something to correct those problems."

He noted that ERDA is working now on choosing a site for a permanent, deep-underground storage vault for the "high level" wastes of weapons production, and plans to have it operating by 1985. Spent nuclear power fuel could conceivably be stored in the same facility, he said, although it would be handled and treated diffently.

Weapons work now produces 7.5 million gallons a year of highly radioactive waste, according to the 1977 Ford Foundation study. "Nuclear Power Issues and Choices." Partly solidified, 72 per cent of it is stored as salt cage at the Hanford Reservation near Richland, Wash, and 25 per cent at the Savannah River facility near Aiken, S.C. The rest in dry form, is stored at Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Much of the concern over nuclear waste comes from leaks at the Hanford facility. There were 18 between 1958 and 1974, the Ford Foundation study said, including one in 1973 that went 48 days before being noticed and accounted for more than a third of the total 429,400 gallon of waste that have soaked into the earth there. Savannah has had one small leak and Idaho Falls none.

In addition, there are six licensed commercial sites and five federal sites, including the three above, for burial of low-level nuclear waste - X-ray film from hospitals, the "cladding" material removed from spent fuel, wiping rags and so on. Some of those sites have been in use for 30 years, and the Environmental Protection Agency said two of them will fill up in 1985.

Another storage facility - one regarded as a major headache by government authorities - is at the site of what was to have been a major reprocessing plant in West Valley, N.Y. The Nuclear Fuel Service Co. and the State of New York went into it together in 1966, but lost $1 million a year and suffered a series of accidents that forced its closure for modifications.

Such high-level waste remains extremely radioactive for 700 years and must be contained in such a way that the heat it generates can dissipate. After that most of the radioactivity is gone, but the most dangerous parts will not begin to cool down for 24,000 years. "Some ways to handle it that are exotic today might not be so in the future," said ERDA's Cunningham.

Then there was the idea of allowing the waste to melt its way down through miles of Arctic or Antarctic ice. The ideas was banned by treaty in Antarctica, but even so the certainty of sudden surges in the ice every 10,000 years or so as ice ages come and go made the notion unattractive.

Deep-sea dumping in containers was ruled out because of the high corrosiveness of sea water and limited knowledge of ocean currents. All these proposals share the fault of making the waste irretrievable should a use for it develop or reprocessing return, in the case of spent fuel.

The most likely alternative is storage deep underground in beds of salt whose very existence proves that millions of years have passed with no water present. Salt is strong, but cracks in it seal by themselves. It conducts heat away efficiently and it underlies 100,000 square miles of the United States. However, much of it is punctured by oil wells or gold mines, many mobilized in several locations to protest its planned use for waste storage.

An international conference of 30 nations will be held in Washington beginning Oct. 19 to talk about the nuclear fuel cycle and problems of nuclear waste, among other topics. "We don't have any spare time on this question," said Rep. Moss.